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Northwest Airlines’ Mechanics on Strike

Times Staff Writers

Northwest Airlines Corp.'s mechanics walked off the job Friday night in the first major U.S. airline strike in seven years, but the nation’s fourth-largest carrier vowed to keep flying its full schedule with replacement workers.

The strike was called at 9:01 p.m. PDT by the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Assn., the union for 4,400 mechanics, aircraft cleaners and other ground workers at Northwest.

There were indications that the strike might already be having some impact on Northwest’s schedule.

According to the airline’s website, several late-evening flights out of its hubs at Minneapolis-St. Paul and Detroit were delayed -- some for several hours -- for maintenance-related reasons. The red-eye flight from Los Angeles International Airport to Detroit was scheduled to leave on time -- but some passengers were concerned about the return trip.

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“I’m nervous about getting back home,” said Kathie Gold, a 46-year-old Mission Viejo school teacher, as she waited with her son and daughter for the Detroit flight.

The walkout occurred as both sides remained far apart on the airline’s demand for concessions. Northwest -- facing an imminent threat of bankruptcy after years of massive losses -- wants to eliminate about half of its AMFA jobs as part of its goal of slashing labor expenses.

The gulf between them was so wide that the strike was not unexpected. Indeed, Northwest had spent more than a year making preparations for a walkout, hiring about 1,200 replacement workers, assigning more than 300 managers to supervise aircraft maintenance and lining up outside vendors to handle the heavy work on its planes and engines.

Citing those plans, AMFA National Director O.V. DelleFemine called the negotiations with Northwest “an arrogant farce with a predetermined ending.”

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“Northwest wanted a strike, and now they have one,” he said in a statement Friday night. “We apologize in advance to the flying public for the inconvenience and disruption the strike will cause.”

But Northwest Chief Executive Douglas Steenland said: “We intend to operate our normal schedule.” The airline also “remains in full compliance” with federal safety regulations, he said in a statement.

The Eagan, Minn.-based airline, which carries an average of 150,700 passengers daily on 1,500 flights, is so confident it can maintain service that it is not offering refunds or waiving change-of-flight penalties for passengers holding nonrefundable tickets.

Northwest also said its advance bookings going into the fall remained strong, and travel agents said there hadn’t been a noticeable move by passengers to book away from the airline.

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The airline has insisted that using replacement mechanics won’t compromise the safety of its operations. Even so, the Federal Aviation Administration is “very closely monitoring the situation,” FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said.

The agency has dispatched more inspectors to Northwest and has “been in very close touch with the company in the past few weeks,” she said.

It could be several days before it’s evident whether Northwest’s strategy will succeed, assuming the strike lasts that long, as the airline begins rotating its 430-plane fleet through routine checks and repairs by replacement mechanics. That so-called line maintenance typically takes an aircraft out of service for two to five days.

Northwest’s flight attendants and pilots reportedly said Friday night that they would not join the walkout, greatly reducing the chances that the strike would cripple the carrier. Last week, the International Assn. of Machinists, which formerly represented Northwest’s mechanics and is still the union for other Northwest ground workers, said it wouldn’t support AMFA.

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The last major airline strike also involved Northwest, when its pilots walked off the job in August 1998, grounding the airline for 15 days. Since then there have been threatened job actions at various carriers, some of which were avoided when the White House intervened.

President Bush could step in if he felt the Northwest strike might upset the nation’s air-travel network, but a White House spokesman has said Bush did not plan to get involved.

Regardless, “we do expect some sporadic problems” in terms of extended delays or cancellations at Northwest if the strike drags on, said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Assn., a passenger-advocacy group in the Washington, D.C., area.

Northwest’s major hub airports are in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Detroit, Memphis and Tokyo. It’s not a major player in the California market. It’s the seventh-largest airline at LAX, where it has 22 departures with about 6,200 passengers a day.

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The carrier also has 13 daily flights from San Francisco International Airport, six from San Diego International, two from Ontario International and four from John Wayne Airport in Orange County.

At LAX on Friday night, passengers for the Detroit flight waited anxiously as nearly a dozen striking mechanics wearing sandwich boards marched in a silent circle outside Terminal 2.

“Flying is tough enough,” said Steven Pal, a 47-year-old healthcare executive from Coto de Caza. Pal also planned ahead, buying tickets both on Northwest and on Southwest Airlines just in case -- for a total outlay of about $900.

The showdown at Northwest is an outgrowth of the misery endured by the nation’s airline industry over the last four years. The carriers together have lost more than $30 billion in that span, and two airlines, UAL Corp.'s United Airlines and US Airways Group Inc., are operating under bankruptcy protection.

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Northwest and Delta Air Lines Inc. have said that they were close to filing under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy laws if they didn’t quickly lower their costs.

Passenger traffic is strong, but average fares are dropping because of the growing presence of discount carriers such as Southwest Airlines Co. and JetBlue Airways Corp.

And at same time fares are falling, jet-fuel costs have soared to record highs, squeezing airlines such as Northwest that have been unable to generate enough sales to cover their rising expenses.

Several carriers, including United and AMR Corp.'s American Airlines, already have taken dramatic steps to lower their costs and become more viable competitors. But Northwest’s progress has lagged, and it continues to have one of the highest cost structures in the industry.

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In the second quarter, for instance, Northwest spent more than 11 cents to fly one passenger one mile, while American Airlines spent 10 cents and Southwest spent less than 8 cents.

To remedy the problem, Northwest’s management is trying to secure $1.1 billion in annual wage and benefit concessions from its workforce, including $176 million from its AMFA employees. The union has balked at accepting such cuts, though it did offer during the negotiations to make smaller paybacks.

The National Mediation Board last month decided the parties were deadlocked and launched a 30-day “cooling off” period. That expired Friday night, freeing AMFA to strike.

The average compensation for a starting Northwest mechanic is about $49,800 a year, and workers with five years’ experience earn about $69,500, the union said.

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The wages are based on a contract AMFA reached with Northwest in April 2001, which included an immediate pay hike of 24.4% and smaller increases in following years. That pact headed off a strike.

If the current strike causes significant disruptions, it would “likely embolden [Northwest’s] remaining unions” in resisting concessions “and radically increase” Northwest’s need to file for bankruptcy, analyst Jamie Baker of J.P. Morgan Securities Inc. wrote in a note to clients this week.

Airlines are increasingly outsourcing their maintenance to lower-cost vendors to reduce their own expenses. Airlines such as Southwest, JetBlue, United and others use outside firms, especially for full-scale airframe and engine overhauls.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Company profile

Northwest Airlines

Founded: 1926

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Headquarters: Minneapolis-St. Paul

Hubs: Amsterdam, Detroit, Memphis, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Tokyo

Destinations: More than 750

in 120 countries; operates in 49

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U.S. states and the District of Columbia

Daily flights: About 1,500, including 22 out of Los Angeles International Airport

Jet fleet: 430 (not including Northwest Airlink)

Employees: 38,348

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Source: Company reports

Los Angeles Times

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Tips for Travelers

Northwest Airlines plans to keep flying a full schedule despite the mechanics union strike, and so far it’s not offering refunds or waiving penalties for passengers with nonrefundable tickets. In case there are cancellations or extended delays, here are tips for travelers with Northwest tickets or reservations:

* If possible, check your flight’s status before leaving for the airport. Call Northwest or your travel agent or visit Northwest’s website, www.nwa.com. If you click on “About Northwest” at the bottom of the page, it will take you to a “Labor Update” section.

* If your flight is canceled, contact Northwest and try to get a ticket on another Northwest flight or on another airline. Under federal law, an airline is required to help you book passage on another carrier if your original flight is canceled for reasons other than weather and it can’t book you on another of its flights within four hours, said John Dekker, president of Carlson Wagonlit Travel’s office in Huntington Beach. Be advised, though, that all airlines are nearly full these days and extra seats might not be immediately available.

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* If you’re already at the airport, phone Northwest immediately to change plans. It might be faster than waiting in line at the Northwest ticket counter. If all else fails and you must get to your destination quickly, buy a full-fare ticket on another airline and try to get a refund from Northwest later.

* If you have an electronic ticket with Northwest and want to change airlines, you should first get in line at the Northwest ticket counter and get your ticket printed on paper, because some airlines won’t accept other carriers’ e-tickets.

* A final tip: Keep your cool. Airline workers are more likely to help people who are calm and polite.

-- James F. Peltz

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